25 July 2012


Reading Judith Shklar's 1989 'A Lifetime of Learning' (Charles Homer Haskins Lecture, American Council of Learned Societies) [PDF], replete with delights such as
One day I picked up the first volume of Shakespeare in the Schlegel-Tieck translation. The first play was Titus Andronicus, and I read it all. To this day I can still feel the fear and horror it inspired. I was so afraid and confused that I could not even bring myself to tell anyone what was bothering me. Finally I managed to spill it out to my oldest sister. As soon as I told her I, of course, felt infinitely relieved, especially as she assured me that these things did not really happen. The trouble was that both she and I knew that far worse was going on all around us. By 1939 I already understood that books, even scary ones, would be my best refuge from a world that was far more terrible than anything they might reveal. And that is how I became a bookworm. It was also the end of my childhood.
when I was required to take a course in money and banking it became absolutely obvious to me that I was not going to be a professional economist. Philosophy was, moreover, mainly taught by a dim gentleman who took to it because he had lost his religious faith. I have known many confused people since I encountered this poor man, but nobody quite as utterly unfit to teach Plato or Descartes. Fortunately for me I was also obliged to take a course in the history of political theory taught by an American, Frederick Watkins. After two weeks of listening to this truly gifted teacher I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. If there was any way of making sense of my experiences and that of my particular world, this was it. 
Watkins was a remarkable man, as the many students whom he was to teach at Yale can testify. He was an exceptionally versatile and cultivated man and a more than talented teacher. He not only made the history of ideas fascinating in his lectures, but he also somehow conveyed the sense that nothing could be more important. I also found him very reassuring. For in many ways, direct and indirect, he let me know that the things I had been brought up to care for, classical music, pictures, literature, were indeed worthwhile, and not my personal eccentricities. His example, more than anything overtly said, gave me a great deal of self-confidence, and I would have remembered him gratefully, even if he had not encouraged me to go on to graduate school, to apply to Harvard, and then to continue to take a friendly interest in my education and career. It is a great stroke of luck to discover one’s calling in one’s late teens, and not everyone has the good fortune to meet the right teacher at the right time in her life, but I did, and I have continued to be thankful for the education that he offered me so many years ago.
I had hardly arrived [at Harvard] when the wife of one of my teachers asked me bluntly why I wanted to go to graduate school, when I should be promoting my husband’s career and having babies. And with one or two exceptions that was the line most of the departmental wives followed. They took the view that I should attend their sewing circle, itself a ghastly scene in which the wives of the tenured bullied the younger women, who trembled lest they jeopardize their husbands’ future. I disliked these women, all of them, and simply ignored them. In retrospect I am horrified at my inability to understand their real situation. I saw only their hostility, not their self-sacrifices.
I was struck very forcefully by the difference between legal and political thinking and by the professional constrictions of jurisprudential thought, especially when it was extended beyond the limits of normal court business. Nothing could have been more remote from my mind, however, than to attack legal scholarship, lawyers, or the integrity of our legal system, but the majority of law journals were really upset at the very notion that politics structured the law very significantly. Nor were they exactly thrilled to read that one could justify the Nuremberg trials only on political grounds and the Tokyo ones not at all. I was told in no uncertain terms that only lawyers could really understand the perfection of legal reasoning. I look back with some amusement at this episode, because my skeptical inquiry into the traditional orthodoxies of legal thought was so mild and so qualified, compared to the assaults that Critical Legal Studies have mounted against the basic assumptions of the legal establishment since then. And it is with some dismay that I now find myself treated as the purveyor of standard ideas, known to and accepted by all, even by the most conservative academic lawyers. To recognize that professions have their self-sustaining ideologies is hardly news today, but it was in 1964. And so Legalism, which is my favorite of the books that I have written, went quickly from being a radical outrage to being a conventional commonplace.
Although I sometimes have students in mind when I write, I tend to keep writing and teaching apart. I have many friends who write their books as they lecture, but I somehow cannot do that, though I wish that I could. I think of the two as complementary, but different. In class I have to think of what the students must be taught, when I write I have only myself to please. I do not even find that the two compete for my time, and rather that mysteriously and semi-consciously, they interact. I have had the good luck to have taught some absolutely wonderful young people. Some of the Harvard seniors whose undergraduate theses I have directed are the most intelligent, stimulating, and delightful people I have known, and preparing for their tutorials has certainly done a lot for my own education as well. 
Graduate students are not as easy to get on with at first, because they are in such a difficult position, having just fallen from the top of their undergraduate class to the very bottom of a very greasy pole. I certainly prefer frank and independent students to ingratiating and flattering ones, and trust those who take charge of their own education most of all. Ultimately they can be the most gratifying people for a teacher. The graduate students who become professional quickly and develop a real passion for their studies may soon be one’s friends, their success is in some way one’s own, and they are often the best partners for discussion, whether we agree or not.